After a postponement on Wednesday, this Saturday (30) the first manned space flight from the USA took place since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. The Falcon 9 rocket did its job as expected and took the Crew Dragon capsule to Earth's orbit, from where the capsule will make adjustments for a meeting with the International Space Station (ISS). The docking of the Endeavor capsule, as it was christened by the astronauts, is scheduled for Sunday, around 11:29 am (Brasília time).
The takeoff took place at 4:22 pm, as planned, departing from platform 39A of the Kennedy Space Center, the same location from where most of the Apollo to the Moon missions (in the 1960s and 1970s) and space shuttles (from 1981 to 2011) departed. Twelve minutes after departure, Crew Dragon was already in orbit, in free flight. The Demo-2 mission is SpaceX's first manned flight and, historically, the first manned orbital flight by a private company. On board, two NASA astronauts: Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. They are expected to spend a few months on the ISS and, with this test flight, mark the transition to commercial crew transport in support of the station's operations.
The preparation followed the same ritual as the aborted launch attempt on Wednesday, with the astronauts presenting themselves to SpaceX about 4 hours before the takeoff for the test of the suits and the subsequent boarding. Hurley and Behnken received quick goodbyes from their family members shortly before leaving for the platform. President Donald Trump, who had flown to Florida to accompany the flight in the failed attempt and left frustrated at the time, spoke on Saturday after the launch.
During the trip to the ISS, the astronauts will carry out tests and checks on the capsule, including firing the propellants to adjust and synchronize the orbit with that of the orbital complex, in preparation for the docking on Sunday. Once on board, they must spend two to three months carrying out experiments and maintenance on board. The exact duration is still uncertain and depends on the performance of the capsule's solar panels over the months, as it remains attached to the ISS.
The flight, designated as Demo-2, was originally just a test, lasting a few days. But NASA decided to extend it to use it as a way to rotate crew on board. In this mission, the American space agency is as a contractor / passenger. She is a partner, collaborator and financier, but the operation of the flight, as well as the ownership of the launch vehicle Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon capsule, belongs to the company SpaceX.
It is a great novelty. And, if all goes well, the beginning of an unprecedented shift in space exploration. Just remember that, in addition to the contract with Nasa, SpaceX also already has flights contracted with the private sector.
The Axiom company plans to make two annual manned flights to the International Space Station, starting in 2021. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who paid a small fortune to ride around the moon in a future SpaceX Starship vehicle, must first make a land orbital tour. Space tourism company Space Adventures also sells seats on future flights. And recently news circulated that Tom Cruise would be in talks with SpaceX and Nasa to shoot a movie in space.
THE USA'S BACK, BUT DIFFERENT
The first investment in this new commercial model of crew transport, in which the agency is a partner and contractor, but not a designer or owner, came in 2010, during the Obama administration. The president's plan was to overturn NASA's direct development of space vehicles and foster competition between companies to provide these services to the agency.
In the midst of this initiative, the White House had proposed the summary cancellation of the Constellation project, created by the Bush administration in the wake of the Columbia space shuttle accident to take astronauts back to the moon.
The US Congress, however, prevented the cut, and both the Orion capsule and a high-capacity rocket (which just changed its name from Ares V to SLS) continued to be developed, under NASA's management, with Lockheed as its main contractors. Martin (in the case of Orion) and Boeing (in the case of SLS).
It was defensible; Until then, no one was clear that private companies, with fixed-price contracts, without NASA's specialized management, could achieve the safety and reliability standards required for manned flights. In fact, the big test of that premise is still ahead, starting with this flight.
But the fact is, while Orion and SLS received much more eye-catching resources (about $ 37 billion and counting), and are still far from the first manned flight (at least 2022, probably 2023), the commercial crew program cost less US $ 8 billion. Generating two different capsules, capable of manned flight.
At the closing of the contract with SpaceX, in 2014, NASA paid for the development of Crew Dragon and for at least one manned test flight the sum of US $ 2.6 billion. A similar arrangement was made with Boeing, which would build its own capsule, CST-100 Starliner, and make at least one manned test flight, for $ 4.2 billion.
With the arrival at the International Space Station, SpaceX wins a symbolic race. In 2011, a small American flag was left by the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis. His destination was to return to Earth on the first manned mission launched from American soil after the retirement of the space shuttles.
One of the crew on the Atlantis mission (STS-135) was Doug Hurley, who now commands the SpaceX Demo-2 mission and will be able to return to the ISS to fetch the flag he left there more than nine years ago.
RELEASE IN PANDEMIA
Reputing flight as an essential activity, NASA went ahead with the launch by taking as many precautions as possible. The astronauts themselves had to go through a longer than usual quarantine before the flight, but, in medical terms, they did not undergo much greater scrutiny.
NASA expects to fly the first regular flight of a Crew Dragon by the end of this year. The Americans Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker are already training to fly it, accompanied by the Japanese Soichi Noguchi.
On the second regular flight, for 2021, a Russian, Andrei Borisenko, is expected to compose the crew.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, naturally looks with some suspicion on the new American vehicles. Especially because, with its entry into operation, NASA is no longer the goose that lays the golden eggs in its space program, hiring exorbitantly priced seats for its astronauts on board the Soyuz capsules – the only means of access to the ISS since the retirement of the buses space.
As of now, if all goes well, NASA intends only to exchange seats, with Americans flying in Russian capsules in exchange for Russians flying in American capsules. The exchange allows greater security and more redundancy in access to the station. But it is no longer a cash mine for Russia.
As for Boeing's Starliner, it will still be some time before it can fly manned. The first unmanned test, conducted in December 2019, failed to take the capsule to the International Space Station. The company has already said it will carry out a new test without astronauts, still without a scheduled date, before proposing to conduct a manned flight.